With nine games left in the season, New York Red Bulls fans are mashing the panic button. A humiliating 2-0 defeat to their conference-leading rivals D.C. United on Sunday have left Mike Petke's chasing the playoffs at an inopportune time.
The debacle in DC typified many of New York's 2014 woes. Big chances went wasted, with Bradley Wright-Phillips shut down by DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid and Tim Cahill pinging the post. The defense failed to communicate, with Ibrahim Sekagya and Luis Robles allowing Luis Silva in for DC's opening goal in the 57th minute. The substitutes didn't come fast enough in hot conditions, with Saer Sene not being inserted until the 81st minute and Peguy Luyindula being held until the 89th.
The Eastern Conference is tight this year, with seven teams around the red line sitting within five points of each other. (As a reminder, the top five teams in each conference make the playoffs - so it's easier to make the playoffs than to miss them.) The Red Bulls now sit just below the line, and will need to put results together quickly to separate from the pack. Unfortunately, this is what September looks like:
September 6th: The Red Bulls host the defending MLS Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City, who comfortably sit second in the Eastern Conference. Tim Cahill, Matt Miazga, and Ambroise Oyongo will miss this match due to international call-ups.
September 10th: Four days later, the Red Bulls face D.C. United, this time at home. Oyongo will miss this match as well.
September 13th: Three days later, they travel to Philadelphia, who sit just a point behind NY and thoroughly embarrassed them back in mid-July. Roy Miller could miss this match due to a call-up.
September 17th: Four days later, the Red Bulls must shift focus back to the CONCACAF Champions League and take on Montreal on the road. A loss would almost certainly condemn New York to group elimination, as Montreal already has six points.
September 20th: Three days later, the Red Bulls host Clint Dempsey and the league-leading Seattle Sounders.
September 24th: Four days later, the Red Bulls travel to El Salvador for the return Champions League leg against CD FAS. Long travel in the middle of a busy month, questionable stadium conditions, and already eliminated competition? This has "trap game" written all over it.
September 28th: Four days later, the team flies to Los Angeles to take on the red hot LA Galaxy, who sit second in the Western Conference.
This is easily the most miserable schedule a team could face when in dire need of points. Seattle, LA, KC, and DC are all tough competition. The international call-ups, while a great reward for the players, come at a bad time. The CONCACAF Champions League will serve largely as extra travel, but should the team fall out of the competitions, frustrations will only increase. And those quick turnarounds - three or four days between each match - can't help a team that's repeatedly complained about fatigue over the year.
The team's one saving grace: a three game home stand in October against three other teams (Houston, Toronto, and Columbus) in the East's playoff pack. But if they can't pick up points in September, it may be too little, too late, and the Red Bulls could quickly miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009.